School doc to be screened

Published 9:15 pm Saturday, January 10, 2015

A free screening of a documentary exploring the history of the former Nansemond County’s first public high school for black students will be held at Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts on Thursday.

Barn Films, which has built a reputation for documentaries about segregated schools in the rural South, produced “Strength Through Our Roots,” about the Nansemond County Training School and Southwestern High School.

One graduate of the training school, which went to the 11th grade, is Enoch Copeland, vice chairman of the Suffolk School Board. “Many other people you know in the city right now … they all were graduates of the school,” he said.

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“The school has a great history, and we want it to be known in this city.”

In the film, some graduates share their stories of the systemic discrimination to which students were subjected. For instance, before their parents pooled money to buy buses, which were barely in working order, the black students, while walking to school, would be spat upon by white students.

But there is also levity. One graduate’s recollection that his mother always knew before he got home when he had been in trouble — “And they didn’t even have cellphones back then” — drew laughter from the audience during the film’s premiere, at Mount Sinai Baptist Church in September.

The school was built in 1924 with $1,500 from the Rosenwald Fund, established by Sears, Roebuck and Co. leader Julius Rosenwald to provide seed money for simple but safe schools where black children could learn. Local black families contributed $5,000 to the Nansemond County Training School, and $11,500 in public money also went into the pot.

The old building still stands on the site of what’s now the former Southwestern Elementary School. In 1956, that building was constructed, and the name was changed in 1964 to Southwestern High School.

Mae Burke is secretary of the Nansemond County Training School Heritage Center, which she said collaborated on the documentary project with the Nansemond County Training School/Southwestern High School Alumni Association.

Burke voiced hopes that the school building can “come alive again,” with the right people and money to make it happen.

It could become a valuable community resource in that part of the city, she said, just like East Suffolk Recreation Center, which was also a Rosenwald school.

“It’s a very, very needed thing,” Burke said. “As more people move out into this area, we are going to need something like this.”

Burke said the cultural arts center has been gracious in providing a venue for “this premiere showing for the public.”

She invited one and all to attend the screening, noting the film only runs about 35 minutes.

“If nothing else, it would serve as a tool of information for them,” Burke said of young people coming to see the film.

“Maybe some of them might be appreciative of how far we’ve come since the 1950s.”

The free screening at the SCCA starts at 7 p.m.